Women employees are facing bigger career challenges than their male colleagues with interruptions to their work-from-home life, according to new research by UConn management professor Nora Madjar.
Madjar’s research, “Working from Home During COVID-19: A study of Interruption Landscape,’’ was published this month by the Journal of Applied Psychology. She co-authored the piece with professors Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington and Aaron Schmidt of the University of Minnesota.
“The gender divide was particularly surprising to us. We had heard anecdotally that it occurred, but now we have empirical evidence that women are interrupted more frequently, both with work-related and personal responsibilities,’’ Madjar says.
“Women have paid an additional price since the onset of the pandemic,’’ she says. “This is more than just an inconvenience. Work interruptions are associated with reduced employee performance and higher levels of emotional exhaustion.’’
The researchers discovered some practical solutions that employers can take to help their employees minimize interruptions, including assistance in establishing a dedicated work space within the employee’s home.
Study Has Long-Term Ramifications as Remote Work Becomes Commonplace
The research breaks new ground on the type and frequency of interruptions to home-based work, something that is still relevant as companies postpone returns to the office, employees transition to hybrid work schedules, and others adopt a permanent work-from-home status.
The researchers surveyed 249 employees, across industries, who were working from home in the U.S. The average study participant was 37, worked full-time, had a bachelor’s degree or higher, lived with a spouse or partner, and had children or other dependents at home.
Not only did employees report more interruptions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the nature of those challenges changed.
“We found that the burden of interruptions was not shared equally, as women reported higher levels of all types of non-work interruptions, suggesting that women experience more fragmented time than men,’’ Madjar says. Even when both partners worked from home, the woman reported more demands related to childcare and household tasks.
Women reported more interruptions than men did prior to the pandemic, but this difference has only increased. The spike in family-related disruptions while working from home during the pandemic was expected, but women noted more frequent interruptions from co-workers and supervisors even while working from home.
Dedicated Home Office Is One Solution
Madjar and her colleagues suggested several steps that organizations and employees can take to minimize interruptions, including helping employees find a quiet, dedicated work space within their homes.
“Having a dedicated home office seems to be a mitigating factor,’’ Madjar says. “Employees with a dedicated workspace reported less interruptions, and that makes sense. But some of our survey participants had to work at the kitchen table or in the living room so that they could supervise young children at the same time. For women, it is hard to ‘find a place to hide’ to get work done.’’
Women also reported more interruptions from colleagues and supervisors than did their male co-workers. The researchers believed this is tied to many women’s willingness to help other colleagues and perhaps a reluctance to set firm boundaries. She recommends corporate executives emphasize emailing, rather than calling, when possible and scheduling project updates, rather than sending random questions throughout the day.
“The shift toward intensive work-from-home has uncovered an important source of gender inequality,’’ Madjar says. “The results of our study provide valuable insights to help understand and improve work experiences not only during the lingering pandemic but also in the future, as remote work becomes the norm long-term for many employees.’’
“This study unpacks how the pandemic has transformed the dynamics around work and non-work lives, making life more fragmented and asking people to perform while frequently interrupted,’’ she says.